Derick K. Ariyam
Professor Gitahi Gititi
21 November 2012
Slavery by Another Name in Euzhan Palcy’s Sugar Cane Alley
Euzhan Palcy’s film, Sugar Cane Alley, presents, among many things, a glimpse into the brutal economics of cane production and processing in Martinique in the early 1930's. Although cutting and sorting sugar cane was legitimate employment—to which a service provided was monetarily compensated—the reality the film presents seems to draw closer parallels to slavery than work. The film seems to show that sugar cane work was a type of slavery masked in a form of legitimate capitalism. This paper explores this fine, blurry line, between this work and slavery conflation.
The film opens with children, unsupervised children, looking after themselves in a mob. All the adults are working at the cane fields and the children are left to their own devices. As the film progresses, we see things continually go awry. The cane field has affected the lives of this next generation of inhabitants, the children; the cane field has consumed the entire life-force of all the able-bodied population. There is little left over for the children, for mentorship and/or learning. When the unsupervised children do something wrong, like get drunk and cause a fire that destroys a considerable amount of property, the only device left is to punish the children. The children are punished and are seen as the problem: not the cane field that caused the lack of supervision, the lack of mentorship
The economics that surround the cane field are conceptual; they are part of a system — a machine. And, like a machine, it is unfeeling and without fleshly existence. As such, it often evades responsibility for the conditions it may itself provoke. Without a clear individual to project blame onto, like a "master" in a slavery situation where the oppressor can be clearly identified, it is less easy to direct blame onto a conceptual system. Likewise, the children are blamed for their chaotic behavior. What's worse, the children are then made to work in the cane field, thus further strengthening the system by adding to its labor force.
Additionally, the influx of new labor creates a new bottom-line, or status quo for production. Like our own modern market systems, performance is always compared to a prior quarter, to a prior year. While a drastic increase in production will provoke a positive surprise in terms of growth, that new higher value in terms of production, is the value it will be compared to for future quarters, future growth. The economics of this system have consumed and incorporated the additional labor of the children.
Further, we see played out in the film an important scene, pay-day, which the film powerfully uses to expose the linkages between the sugar cane economy and the institution of slavery. One by one the laborers are called, and after consulting the ledger, each is given their compensation. Through the reaction of the employees, pay day does not appear to be a happy moment. One man is fined deeply for urinating while working. This notion of "fining" is interesting, as it provides the boss a means to "legitamately" undermine the very economic system being relied on. The man in question that is fined still produced the same amount of labor and thus should be compensated for the labor itself -- trade for trade. However, the mechanism of "fining" allows the master to prescribe an arbitrary value—often unfairly and uncontestably— to effect what is supposed to be a fair exchange of labor for capital.
Likewise, in the same pay-day scene we see the individuals earn their wages, and then simply spend it all within moments of having received it. The expenses are not frivolous one, or fetish commodities, but essential, basic needs. We see one couple spend all their money, plus a few extra in credit, to purchase basic foodstuffs. Thus, perpetuating a system of debt, and perpetuating a system to which they must continue to labor. Contrasting this situation with slavery provides few differences apart from the ceremony of pay-day and the transactions that occur soon after at the shop keepers. Slaves are of course, also fed. To be free then in Sugar Cane ally is to go hungry, it is to die: there is no real choice. Mr Medouze reiterates this notion, when he says "we were free, but we had empty bellies. Nothing has changed… The Master has become the boss."
The cane field is little different, and just as harsh as the environment of a slave. All energy is consumed and expended in the production of cane. There are no vacations or any concept of a reasonable working day. There is no age-discrimination -- no maternity leave. Employees work from morning until their bones ache during the night. One of the workers in Sugar Cane Alley is almost at the last stages of her pregnancy while still taxing her body with the same intensity as all the other workers. She will eventually deliver yet-another, still born baby. To the news of her miscarriage, Jose's grandmother is relieved and thankful that yet another child escapes the cane field. The film thus shows that there are two ways one may escape the cane field, by death, and as will be seen later, through education. This could be another reading to the message on the school master's blackboard, "that learning is the key that opens the second door to our freedom," implying perhaps that the two doors that lead to freedom are either death or learning.
Mr. Medouze and Jose are similar in many ways, especially in this idea that both individuals reached freedom and exited the cane field: one through death (Medouze), and the other through Education (Jose). While talking with Jose, Mr Medouze thinks on the possibility of "going to Africa" to get away from the Cane field. It is only after Jose prods and asks to join Mr Medouze on his journey to Africa do we learn that Africa speaks of an afterlife, that death can only carry him to. Jose's freedom comes from his success in school, to which he completely avoids the toil of the Cane field. However, both freedoms are ironic and complicated in this film. The extent and of the freedom is called into question. Mr. Medouze's freedom is an end of life, which of course, itself negates the idea of freedom: one cannot logically be free if they have no existence to which to be free from. Jose's freedom is controlled, perpetual freedom. As Sylvie Kande notes, Jose "associates naively his personal freedom with the work of the adults." Again, economics re-appear in Jose's situation to which his freedom is at the mercy of benefactors to pay his tuition, or at the cost of his grandmother life through toil and death.
The film is partly a bildungsroman charting the educational development and maturity of José, a young boy reared by his grandmother, who grows up in a small village in Martinique. However, the overarching theme of the film is its powerful, visual, commentary on the brute reality of sugar cane production.